Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Binman Experiment

Doctor Who
The Lazarus Experiment
Series Three, Episode Six

Well, that was...  I mean, it's really...  Okay, it's got lots of...

Sorry, but I really struggled with this one.  The Lazarus Experiment is one of the dullest episodes of Doctor Who I've ever seen.  It's don't-pause-it-while-I-put-the-kettle-on boring.

It sounds pretty exciting when you stack up all the bits.  It's got a man "changing what it means to be human", played by Mark Gatiss; a decent CGI creature running around monstering up the place; a couple of ominous hints towards the finale; and the Doctor and Martha's relationship finally going somewhere.  The trouble is, that's all just stuff.  It doesn't necessarily add up to anything.

This is probably my favourite bit of "stuff".
Is it me, or is that a Tom Baker impression?
Okay, so the Doctor drops Martha off at home and is about to leave (isn't he lovely?) when he overhears something on the telly: a man named Richard Lazarus has changed what it means to be human, and is about to perform a groundbreaking experiment to prove it.  Martha has an in there (her sister Tish is the professor's head of PR), so she and the Doctor attend the big experiment.  And in front of various black-tie-wearers and waiters, Lazarus steps into a magic booth as a 76 year old man and emerges a blond thirty-something.  Cue gasps, people taking pictures, and the Doctor musing that it'll all end in tears.

Already, the episode is sliding from "exciting" to, er, "not so much".  Professor Lazarus has just changed what it blah blah blah, right in front of everybody.  This has enormous implications for the human lifespan.  It's a ruddy big deal.  And what does Professor Lazarus, and everyone else, actually do about it?  They chat and eat nibbles.  It's one small step for man and apparently, one giant bore for mankind.  I mean really, all that hyperbole on the news, and nobody's rushing to phone the papers?  What are you guys in the corner chatting about that's more interesting than this?

Anyway, the Doctor was right, and the experiment goes awry.  The Professor has unwittingly activated a dormant evolutionary path (or something), which means he becomes a giant life-sucking scorpion with a human face.  (I see Series Three isn't quite done misunderstanding evolution.)  He must feed every so often or, presumably, he won't stay young.  On the one hand, this is boring because it's completely random.  He turns into a what?  When did humanity almost decide to be a bunch of giant scorpions, and then think "That's a lot of bother, let's go mammal instead"?  Why's it giant?  Why doesn't it eat, y'know, meat or something?  Why does he keep transforming back and forth?  And why does he still have a human face, voice and mind, if this is a "different evolutionary path"?  (Besides the obvious answer of giving the Doctor someone to talk to.)

On the other hand, it's boring because even though it's a totally unforeseen and horrible turn of events, Lazarus is totally okay with it.  I know he's a bit of a bastard and he wants to stay young forever he's obsessed, I get it but would you instantly be okay with transforming at random intervals, and needing to murder people all the time?  How long does he see this going on before, say, the military intercede, or someone drops a giant boot on him?  Mark Gatiss convinces as the elder Lazarus, oozes unpleasantness as the younger one, and does a horribly good job of writhing in agony between transformations, but the character's so improbably cool about all this that none of it seems very interesting.  He's obviously been dying to letch on some younger women, but being A-OK with killing them seems ludicrous.

I can't be the only one unconvinced by Tish's sudden
attraction to Lazarus.  She was repulsed by him when
he was 76, but now he's young(er) she's "found someone"?
Shallow much?
And speaking of the good professor, I should probably address the elephant in the room.  He's called Lazarus, and he finds a way to extend the human lifespan.  Wow.  Jaw-dropping imagination, there.  You don't think maybe it's a bit on the nose?  If he'd been Richard Smith, say, or Richard Binman, would any of this have happened?  (Although saying that, The Binman Experiment is a catchy title.  I'll have that!)  I mean, for God's sake, Lazarus?  There's a moment later on when the Doctor says "Lazarus.  Back from the dead.  I should have known, really."  Really?  You're making that joke 30 minutes into the episode?  Lazarus?  It's no better than calling your Bond villain Mr Megalomaniac.

If I get slightly stuck on details like this, it's probably because there's so little else going on.  The Lazarus Experiment soon boils away to the big scorpion running around, and David Tennant running around as well (does he have to do that silly run, with his eyebrow up and his teeth all gnashy?), and both of them trying to kill each other, and failing, and is it over yet?  There's lots of sonic screwdriver pointing, lots of party guests spilling their cocktails, and a random CGI thingie offing them with ease (which the Doctor fails to stop prop me up, in case I faint with surprise!).  It's just not very tense.

The monster mash is boredom in motion.  The episode's at its best (such as it is) when it's quieter.  There's a scene near the end where the Doctor grills Lazarus on the realities of a long life, the only certainty being that you'll end up alone.  (Well, unless Lazarus fixes his machine, in which case we'd all get to keep our loved ones forever.  But let's skip over that bit.)  This is great stuff for David Tennant, and Mark Gatiss matches him perfectly, but it's still a bit damp.  I can't help thinking of School Reunion, which tackled a very similar subject before and, to my mind, did it better.  Sarah Jane's final understanding, that pain and loss define us as much as the good stuff in life, landed with a more resounding thud than any of this, try as it might.  (And it tries very hard, throwing in gobs of T. S. Eliot, including that "not with a bang, but with a whimper" quote you've heard a million times.)  The parallels with the Doctor are drawn in thick marker pen, but they're not entirely sound.  Lonely as he is, well, he's not actually alone.  He loses everyone in the end, but by the same token he's always making new friends, as well as touching and improving lives.  The lack of a tell-tale cut to Martha at this point speaks volumes, unfortunately.

Alas, Martha.  She's probably the best thing in this.  She's smart, sneaking a DNA sample out of Lazarus when he kisses her hand.  She's capable, helping her brother with his concussion.  And she's mature, taking the Doctor's initial thoughtless "Bye then" not with a sulk, but with a sincere "Thank you".  She puts him rightly in his place at the end, insisting on traveling full time or not at all.  How great is she?

"What happened inside the capsule was what was supposed to happen.
No more, no less."
"You can't know that until you've run proper tests."
Yes!  I was about to say that!  Love her.
If only he'd notice.  The Doctor says yes, but he still seems cold towards her throughout, even though he's got no good reason to.  Yet again, when he saunters off to do things by himself, he doesn't seem to bear his companion in mind, what she's up to, or whether she's safe.  (Martha nearly falls to her death at the end; it's Tish, not the Doctor, who pulls her to safety.)  I know it's character development of a sort, perhaps it's "different" to have no chemistry between Doctor and companion, but it's frustrating and bloody boring watching Freema Agyeman throw all her effort away.  Who thought this was a good idea?  Maybe a visit from Donna wouldn't go amiss; he could use a slap.

Fortunately, Martha's mother is on hand to provide one, not that it helps, and not that she's personally got a good reason to slap him anyway.  What's her problem, exactly?  There's lots of dark dialogue about how Martha is "abandoning" them all for this mysterious stranger, and one of the arc-hinty Mr Saxon's entourage tells her a few things about the Doctor, which makes her hate him all the more.  This is hilariously unnecessary, given her already psychotic mistrust of the man.   It's not necessarily bad writing she's incredibly bitter at her husband for his mid-life-crisis divorce, so it makes sense for her not to trust new men on the block.  But Martha was first seen with the Doctor last night from her perspective, and Martha's an adult, so what's the big deal?  (As for what Saxon's lackey tells her, I hope we're not supposed to be on tenterhooks wondering what dark truths were divulged.  We know the Doctor quite well enough to suspect it's going to be bollocks.)  The whole situation feels like they're simply too used to having companions' mothers hate the Doctor to not do it again.  (Certainly the Doctor's "mothers!" joke suggests as much.)  The difference is, Jackie Tyler actually had a good reason to dislike him.

It's difficult summoning any enthusiasm for The Lazarus Experiment, but I can't entirely condemn it either.  The acting's often great, and the CGI's excellent.  It's just that so much of it feels like going through the motions, and given all the time and effort that goes into Doctor Who, I find it oddly infuriating that an episode should feel so much like filler.  The worst thing about it is the thought that this was on the top of the pile.  Slim pickings, this year.


  1. I honestly have nothing to add here - I think you've summed this one up pretty much perfectly. There's a little bit of good scattered throughout, but an awful lot of 'meh'.

    I find it difficult to articulate why I dislike this one so much - I mentioned on your Shakespeare Code review that I hate that one, but I find even that one more watchable than this - I always skip this episode. I guess I didn't think the monster design was very good, the retention of the human face gives it a squick factor that I find really uncomfortable but maybe that was the point. And so much of the screen time is taken up by Mark Gatiss being a slimy perv, and that's not fun either. The Doctor's pretty much just irritating here - his treatment of good, capable Martha is really starting to grate this far through the season, and David Tennant is doing his usual half-ass shouty, spitting Doctor here. He's at his least likeable when he gets like this (side note - your tagline under teh Tennat pic above mentions that he's doing a Tom Baker impression, I've always felt that the Tenth Doctor was basically a riff off the Fourth. There's even something about their faces that looks a bit similar).

    But Martha's still great, and I quite like Tish despite her shallowness. Their mum is being completely irrational here. It was seriously not even 24 hours ago that Martha 'vanished' - hell, I sometimes don't talk to my family for WEEKS. Get over it woman! Your daughter is an adult, so what if she disappears for a day with some bloke!

    So yeah, it's not excruciatingly awful, just bland, by-the-numbers and forgettable. Seriously, I really do forget that this one even exists sometimes. If I'd been the one reviewing these episodes, I think I would have been momentarily surprised to find that this one was next, and then experienced a wee panic episode as I tried to think of something - ANYTHING - to say about it. So well done :)

  2. I've not often noticed a Ten/Four comparison, although funnily enough there's a bit in Human Nature (just after he changes back and drops the John Smith "act") where makes a shocked, inward-breathing "Ohhh!" noise. That's pure Baker! And to be honest, fair enough. I don't think Tennant's Doctory enough half the time, there are worse ways of getting it right than borrowing from the greats.

    I like Tish. She reminds me of someone I used to work with. And of course, a scene with Martha and Tish in it is going to have a certain... um... well it's not going to hurt the eyes, is what I'm saying...

    But yeah, reviewing this was an absolute pain. I, too, tend to forget this episode is even there. Oh well, all over now, onwards and upwards! To 42. *audience laughs*